Why Telling Images of Displacement, Knee-Deep Water Have Done Little to Fix the Issue of Floods

Srinivas Alavilli
·4-min read

Almost every year, we wake up to images of homes and vehicles submerged in water, children being rescued by boats on streets in one city or the other. This year, Hyderabad and Bengaluru are experiencing the same. Thousands of people spend long dark nights without electricity in knee-deep water, displaced from their homes, valuables lost and loved ones worried about their safety.

The administration kicks into action and works on war footing to clear the flood. As ghastly images flood WhatsApp groups, the CM and his ministers start visiting the affected areas, issuing tall orders to officers and making promises of “permanent” fixes. A few days later, life goes back to normal and the story repeats the very next year.

Just like poverty and malnutrition, urban floods are now getting normalised in public consciousness. We are getting used to them and not holding anyone accountable for the mess.

By now, the reasons for urban flooding are well understood. Excessive concretisation in our cities leaves no place for rain water to go. Encroachment of storm water drains translates to roads becoming drains. The cascading network of lakes and tanks, built over centuries, can be seen on Google Maps, but not found in the physical world.

Most streets in Bengaluru have shoulder drains that act as carriers of rainwater to the nearest lake or ‘raja kaluve’ (storm water drain). Nowadays, these shoulder drains are hard to find as they are either covered or filled with debris or altogether blocked by residents without thinking about the consequences. When it comes to individual homes, there is a law that mandates every home (40*60 or above) must have rain water harvesting, but that has hardly been enforced.

If the rainwater cannot recharge ground water or run off into a drain and get to a lake, where else will it end up other than homes and streets?

I believe the root cause of urban floods lies in real estate. Unless and until we acknowledge this and take concrete (no pun intended) steps, we will not be able to make amends. Since the demand for land is way higher than the supply, every inch of land becomes precious commodity.

Coupled with lack of planning and lack of enforcement of zoning regulations, rampant corruption in departments that issue building permits, legal loopholes that open the door for exploitation, cities end up with more and more concrete everywhere. Storm water drains either disappear or become cesspools of sewage, which then enters the lakes, makes them unusable and in some cases, lead to the infamous frothing and burning.

What’s the connection to real estate?

Contesting elections is now an extremely expensive proposition and the massive investments cannot be recovered without indulging in illegal activity involving real estate, as the potential for quick multifold returns are high. Political power is abused to encroach public spaces and sensitive land parcels, give permissions for new layouts where they should not exist, flout building bye-laws and deviate from approved plans, the list is long. Since the city master plan is weak and very little zoning is enforced in the real world, all the little violations end up creating that urban flood.

How do we get out this?

The technical solutions are well known and can be implemented if there is political will. Rainwater harvesting will become a citizen movement sooner than later.

But nothing will change unless our political class introspects and recognizes that they are killing the golden goose, and decide to take a voluntary undeclared break from exploiting the real estate and focus on rebuilding our lakes and drains, street by street, ward by ward.

Enough of problems, let’s discuss solutions

Start with the street. Make every street better prepared for next year starting today. Call for civic groups and RWAs to audit the streets and identify problems like blocked shoulder drains and report them to ward officer and ensure each single work gets into next budget. Ward Committees can make this happen.

Dig a Million Recharge Wells: This is an existing program that can transform our city within a short time. Make it a citizen led movement - get every street and school, every CEO and celebrity to do this publicly so it becomes a civic responsibility As the drains are fixed they must put recharge pits within them. Ward Committees can make this happen. Celebrate success by giving awards.

Storm water drains: Finally some work has begun but this is the hardest problem to solve thanks to encroachments. Strong political will is required to make things happen. Every year BBMP allocates hundreds of crores every year, but we don’t see outcomes.

Lakes are coming back but the rate at which lake revival is happening must be accelerated by 10 times by allocating budgets. If CSR money can build metro stations, why not lakes? Identify cascading lake networks and fix them on priority so the city can see the beautiful system we have come to life again!

Srinivas Alavilli is with Janaagraha Center for Citizenship and Democracy. Opinions expressed are personal.